Are Bachelor’s Degrees Worth It? asks Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, in the Wall Street Journal.
With unemployment among college graduates at historic highs and outstanding student-loan debt at $1 trillion, the question families should be asking is whether it’s worth borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for a degree from Podunk U. if it’s just a ticket to a barista’s job at Starbucks.
In Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, families can now compare colleges and majors based on the first-year earnings of graduates of in-state schools. First-year salaries are higher for workers with an associate degree in an occupational field than for four-year graduates. ”
In Virginia, graduates with technical degrees from community colleges make $20,000 more in the first year after college than do graduates in several fields who get bachelor’s degrees,” reports Selingo.
Four-year graduates usually earn more over a lifetime than two-year graduates — but only if they actually complete the degree.
“Not all college degrees or college graduates are equal,” warns a Brookings policy brief, Should Everyone Go To College?
While the average return to obtaining a college degree is clearly positive, we emphasize that it is not universally so. For certain schools, majors, occupations, and individuals,
college may not be a smart investment. By telling all young people that they should go to
college no matter what, we are actually doing some of them a disservice.
Going to a highly selective college and majoring in a STEM field lead to high earnings. By contrast, education or arts majors ”in the service sector” earn less than the average high school graduate over a lifetime, according to Brookings. (It’s not clear what “service sector” means.)
Is College Worth It? Consider the alternatives before going into debt advises William J. Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, and co-author David Wilezol. A four-year degree isn’t necessary for success, Bennett tells U.S. News.
By 2018 there will be 14 million jobs available, well-paying jobs, which will require more than a high school diploma but less than a college diploma, Bennett says. Community college graduates (with a technical certificate or two-year degree) can earn more than four-year graduates.
Community college, trade school or working for a year and thinking about are all alternatives to pursuing a bachelor’s degree, Bennett says.
Put some money in the bank. Join the military is another alternative where you earn great trade skills. We heard from an expert that there are 115,000 janitors in America with B.A.s. It’s fine to be a janitor, but you didn’t have to spend that kind of money to be a janitor.
Parents and students may be surprised at “the large array of options available, other than the B.A., that can give you success and economic success, and not have to make you defer for 10 years getting married and starting a family and buying a house,” says Bennett.
Track graduation rates and default rates for all students — not just full-timers — advises Education Sector in Degrees of Value: Evaluating the Return on the College Investment. In addition, it’s important to take into account whether colleges are enrolling low-income, high-risk students or taking only affluent students. Other suggestions:
First-year earnings matched by College Measures are simply too limiting given that employees’ salaries are often volatile in the years right after college graduation. A more useful dataset would show lifetime earnings, sortable by institution and major, and connect to other government data sources, so policymakers could more easily track the earnings of those who received government aid, such as Pell grants or student loans.
When viewed in isolation, career earnings can be misleading, if for example an institution places most of its graduates in public-service fields. A better consumer information system would give students and policymakers a snapshot of the types of jobs graduates from particular colleges and majors end up taking.
Student satisfaction surveys also would help prospective students evaluate their choices.
Many Pell Grant recipients aren’t prepared for college and never complete a degree, writes Jane Shaw of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Instead of denying Pell aid to remedial students, she proposes requiring evidence of readiness, such as SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).
“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” write researchers Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”
According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of getting a B- average in college, students should achieve about 1030 on the math and verbal SATs and earn a B average in high school (taking courses of at least “average” rigor). Using this benchmark, only 32 percent of students taking the SATs in 2009 were fully college-ready! On the other hand, to have a chance at a C average in college, they can get by with a 730 score on math and verbal, says the College Board.
But even getting a C average would be a struggle for these students, and the possibility of failure or dropping is out is all too likely.
Universities may already be designating remedial courses as college-level courses, even without the incentive of qualifying students for federal aid.
Pell Grant recipients don’t get a tuition break at many public and private universities, according to Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. Instead, universities compete for “the ’best and brightest’ students—and the wealthiest,” he writes in Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave Low-Income Ones Behind.
Pell recipients are forced to take on more debt and work more hours, reducing their odds of completing a degree, Burd writes. Nearly two-thirds of private colleges and universities ask students from families making $30,000 or less to pay more than $15,000 a year for college.
Is online learning for steerage passengers, while only the elite actually meet their professors? Peter Sacks worries about stratifying and standardizing higher education on Minding the Campus.
Online learning will reduce higher education costs without harming student learning outcomes, argues former Princeton president William G. Bowen in Higher Education in the Digital Age. Bowen estimates teaching labor costs could be cut by 36 percent to 57 percent and cites a study by ITHACA, a non-profit organization, which found online students earn similar scores to students in traditional courses. Furthermore, access to online courses “could reduce the average time it takes to complete a degree, making colleges more productive, affordable and efficient.”
However, cutting teacher labor costs means cutting “interpersonal interactions that are an essential part of an authentic education,” Sacks writes.
. . . we should let fast and cheap educational programs provide students with basic skills and have the universities provide the real education. Faculty will then take on a new role: Instead of lecturing large classes, they will become expert consultants who guide learners in the application of information for solving, creating and inventing. David Brooks recently cited one professor’s prediction that universities will eventually tell students to take certain college courses online, “and then, when you’re done, you will come to campus and that’s when our job will begin.”
Currently, online learning is primarily for lower-income, lower-achieving students, writes Sacks, citing federal data. In 2007-08, the most recent data available, 18 percent of college students were enrolled exclusively in online programs. These students were more likely to attend an open-admissions college and to be the first in their families to attend college. Online programs provide access — to not-so-higher education, concludes Sacks.
Well-off students will attend the few colleges and universities that are wealthy enough to eschew standardization and automation. They alone will have real relationships with great faculty. A second, less wealthy group of students will use online courses for their general education and attend “authentic” institutions for a short while. For poorer students, online learning could well become the main course. They will attend institutions that, strictly speaking, grant post-high school credentials to the coach class.
At San Jose State, which is experimenting with online courses to reduce costs, philosophy professors criticized an edX course on justice taught by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor and an academic star.
In an open letter, philosophy professors said online courses from elite universities “would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities,” reports the New York Times. “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy depts. across the country is downright scary,” the letter said.
Provost Ellen Junn said nobody had told the philosophy department to use the Sandel course, however several professors said they felt pressured to offer it. Peter J. Hadreas, who chairs the department, “said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.”
Sandel responded, writing, “I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities.”
Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America has no courses — online or in person. It employs no teachers, just online coaches. Students complete assignments and projects to show their mastery of 120 “competencies,” such as distinguishing fact from opinion or conveying information through charts and graphs, reports the Boston Globe. Students can earn an accredited associate degree, then show potential employers an online portfolio of their work.
Last semester, Ashley Collins often faced a terrible choice: go to her night class, or pick up a waitressing shift to help pay her community college tuition. Class usually lost out.
As a former foster child with no family to help pay for college, the 21-year-old works three jobs while trying to stay in school.
This year, she switched colleges, and now does her schoolwork at home, in her pajamas when she feels like it.
Students move ahead at their own pace, paying $1,250 every six months. Collins is on track to complete a two-year degree in six months. If she’d continued working and taking classes at night, a degree could have taken 10 years, she told the Globe. She earns $9.91 an hour caring for developmentally disabled adults.
College for America started in January with 277 students enrolled through their jobs: groundskeepers, telemarketers, factory workers, gas station employees and caregivers at the nonprofit that employs Collins.
College for America passed a high hurdle in April when the U.S. Education Department agreed to provide financial aid to its students, the first time a program based on competency rather than “seat time” has been approved.
“The federal government is saying, maybe we should be paying for learning rather than time,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a prominent think tank. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about it, but it really could signal a new era in higher education.”
Southern New Hampshire, a private nonprofit, developed its online curriculum using online resources, including video lectures, readings and web sites, rather than writing its own study materials.
When students submit assignments, graders provide feedback within 48 hours. If it’s not good enough, students are told to try again.
Many of the assignments are practical. One presents students with hypothetical proposals for a vending machine contract for the employee lounge and ask him to write a memo evaluating the vendors. Then, a grader determines whether the students’ work demonstrates they have mastered five competencies, including writing a business memo, using logic, and making calculations in a spreadsheet.
Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s presidents, hopes to offer a bachelor’s degree and enroll 350,000 students by 2018. In addition to working with employers, the college may partner with churches and community organizations to offer support to independent students.
Western Governors University, an online nonprofit created in 1997, offers competency-based, self-paced bachelor’s degree programs.
Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin system also are experimenting with competency-based programs, reports USA Today.
KnowledgeWorks looks at the federal role in competency education, focusing on K-12 schooling.
Can “novice learners” succeed in all-online courses? Many believe remedial and entry-level students need lots of personal attention to succeed. But San Jose State is working with Udacity on three online basic math courses that include round-the-clock online mentors, hired and trained by the company, reports the New York Times.
The tiny for-credit pilot courses, open to both San Jose State students and local high school and community college students, began in January, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. But early signs are promising, so this summer, Udacity and San Jose State are expanding those classes to 1,000 students, and adding new courses in psychology and computer programming, with tuition of only $150 a course.
San Jose State professors provided lecture notes and a textbook for the three basic math courses. Udacity employees wrote the script. The nonprofit also supplies online mentors who answer students questions immediately.
The Gates Foundation is giving grants to develop massive open online courses to teach basic and remedial skills, said Josh Jarrett, a foundation officer.
“For us, 2012 was all about trying to tilt some of the MOOC attention toward the more novice learner, the low-income and first-generation students,” he said. “And 2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students can get credit. While some low-income young adults can benefit from what I call the free-range MOOCs, the research suggests that most are going to need more scaffolding, more support.”
A bill in the state Senate would let wait-listed students earn credit for faculty-approved online courses, including those from private vendors such as Udacity and edX. The bill is controversial, especially with faculty members.
San Jose State President Mohammad Qayoumi favors blended learning for upper-level courses, “but fully online courses like Udacity’s for lower-level classes,” reports the Times. Online courses can be expanded easily, eliminating wait lists.
“If the results are good, then we’ll scale it up, which would be very good, given how much unmet demand we have at California public colleges,” said Ronald Rogers, a statistics professor. “I’m involved in this not to destroy brick-and-mortar universities, but to increase access for more students,” Rogers said.
A proposed “New University of California” would award credits to students who pass exams proving mastery, regardless of whether they learned the material in class, online, at work or whatever, reports KQED.
Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, proposed AB 1306 to expand access to college degrees. New University would not offer classes, hire professors or charge tuition, but would be empowered to grant degrees if a student qualified for enough academic credit in a course of study. Students would pay a fee to take an exam.
California’s community colleges already offer course credit by exam, said an official in the chancellor’s office.
Wilk’s idea would “cheapen” state university degrees, responds Eric Grunder, opinion editor of the Stockton Record.
. . . before we set a whole new “university,” let’s better fund the community colleges, CSU and UC systems we have, including opening more seats and helping students pay to sit in them.”
College will be “better and drastically cheaper” in the near future as higher education is “unbundled,” argues Vance Fried in College 2020. ”Online 2.0 takes today’s version of online education to another level by making the whole curriculum competency-based and using self-paced courses that eliminate the need for a course instructor,” Fried writes.
Western Governors University, which offers low-cost competency-based degrees, is the first step, he writes. Southern New Hampshire University also is launching an affordable Online 2.0 degree.
Whether college pays — in dollars — depends on where you go and what you study. College Risk Report, a web site created by 29-year-old Jared Moore, asks the collegebound to enter their prospective college or university and their major. It estimates how long it would take to pay off a bachelor’s degree and compares that to the payoff for an associate degree at an “average” community college or a high school diploma.
Forbes asked the site to analyze the time needed to pay off loans for an art degree from a small liberal arts college, Marymount Manhattan.
Earning a four-year degree in art would pay less over a lifetime than getting a two-year degree or “simply being an artist right out of high school,” notes Forbes. An engineering degree from a state university has a faster payoff and is worth much more than two-year degree.
Community colleges are worried about staying relevant “if massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning begin to offer students a high-quality, convenient, and low-cost pathway to a college degree,” writes Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia, in CCRC Currents.
So far, however, community college students find it difficult to learn online, according to CCRC studies.
We found that in the majority of online courses, students had little meaningful interaction with their instructors. While the courses frequently required interaction with peers in online discussion boards or chat rooms, most students did not value this peer-to-peer interaction and said it felt both artificial and of little educational value.
Students told us that if they expected to struggle in a subject or really “wanted to learn something,” they preferred a face-to-face classroom where they had more contact with the professor. In online courses, they reported, they were more or less on their own.
Online instructors expected students to be independent learners “able to manage their time, take initiative, and generate their own
approach to mastering course material.”
In What We Know About Online Course Outcomes, the CCRC summarizes its research on community college students’ success in all-online courses, looks at how online courses can be improved and discusses how online instructors “might create a more robust presence in their courses in order to improve student engagement and retention.”
College tuition and fees have risen by 893 percent since 1980, nearly five times the 179 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index, reports the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. That’s almost twice the increase in medical costs. Many colleges and universities plan tuition hikes for fall 2013.
Students in “early-college high schools” are more likely to complete high school and go on to college, reports Jobs for the Future. Ninety-three percent of students in JFF’s network – 246 early-college schools with 75,000 students — complete a high school diploma in four years, compared to a national average of 75 percent, according to the JFF report. Seventy-six percent of network graduates enroll immediately in college, compared to a national rate of 68 percent.
At early college high schools open for at least four years, 23 percent of students earn a college certificate or associate degree along with their high school diploma. The average early-college graduate earns 36 college credits. That’s equivalent to more than a year of college — if all credits are accepted for transfer.
Saving money on college is a big issue for early-college students and their parents, reports JFF. More than half of early-college students come from low-income families, more than two thirds are Latino, black or Native American and xx percent are the first in their family to attend college.
The early-college model appears to be working, reports College Bound.
Allowing students to take even one college-level class in high school can significantly increase the chances of going to and completing college, research from JFF last fall revealed.
The American Institutes for Research has evaluated the Early High School College Initiative and found students in these schools outperform their peers on state standardized assessments and have higher on-time graduation rates than students in surrounding districts.
To reach students with the most need, JFF is shifting early colleges from a small schools model to a “systemic high school reform strategy, writes Joel Vargas on the JFF blog. With a five-year, $15 million federal Investing in Opportunity (i3) grant, JFF will partner with Denver Public Schools, Educate Texas, Brownsville ISD, and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD to spread the early college design to 30,000 new students.